Can carbon capture technology help us reverse the effects of climate change?

Industries: Energy
  • We release between 30 and 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually
  • Carbon capture technology is increasingly touted as the solution to climate change
  • Will the high costs of carbon capture technology threaten its viability?

Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, vanishing Arctic sea ice; these are just some of the most prominent consequences of climate change, which are becoming more and more severe with the passage of time. And we’re finding ourselves at a turning point: either we take a stand right now and do something to mitigate the effects of climate change, or we risk causing permanent damage to our planet and putting humanity on a very dark and dangerous path, from which there may be no coming back.

We release between 30 and 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually

The first step is a rather obvious one — reducing the amount of global carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world produces somewhere between 30 and 40 gigatons of CO2 every year, which is simply unsustainable in the long run. However, with carbon emissions left to grow unchecked for so long, even cutting them down all the way to zero may not be enough to achieve the desired outcome anymore. A recent report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that, in addition to reducing our CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and eliminating them completely by 2050, we’d also need to find a way to achieve ‘negative emissions’ in certain sectors by removing some of the carbon dioxide from the air if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Many experts believe that carbon capture technology could be the solution to this problem.

Pollution from factories blowing smoke into the air
The first step is a rather obvious one — reducing the amount of global carbon emissions.

Carbon capture tech is increasingly touted as the solution to climate change

The Swiss company Climeworks recently announced the launch of a new direct air capture (DAC) plant in Troia, Italy, which will be able to remove up to 150 tons of CO2 from ambient air each year. Funded largely within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research project STORE&GO, the plant consists of three DAC collectors that suck in air and pass it through a filter that only captures carbon dioxide, while a 1.2 MW alkaline electrolyser generates 240 cubic meters of renewable hydrogen per hour using on-site solar panels. The carbon dioxide and hydrogen are then subjected to a Power-to-Gas process that converts them into methane, which is later liquified and used to power trucks that run on natural gas. Furthermore, the heat released in the process is used to increase its overall efficiency. According to Climeworks’ co-founder, Christoph Gebald, there could be other applications as well, as the process could also potentially be adapted to produce jet fuel.

The company aims to capture one percent of global carbon emissions annually by 2025. However, it’s still very far from reaching that goal. “To do this, we will need 250,000 plants like the commercial plant in Hinwil, or 750,000 shipping containers full of CO2 collectors, the same number of containers to pass through Shanghai harbour every two weeks,” says Climeworks spokesperson Martin Jendrischik. Right now, they only have three. In addition to the new Italian plant, Climeworks also operates a commercial plant in Hinwil, Zurich, which was opened in May 2017 and has the capacity to capture 900 tons of CO2 annually. The plant uses waste heat generated by the incineration facility situated below it to heat up the captured carbon and then feed it to a nearby greenhouse, where it’s used to support vegetable growth.

The second plant, with the capacity to capture 50 tons of CO2 per year, was opened in November 2017. Built at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant near Reykjavik, one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world, the plant captures carbon from the ambient air, which is then turned into carbonated water and injected underground. There, it reacts with elements like calcium, magnesium, and iron to become basalt rock. The whole process, which naturally takes hundreds or thousands of years, is here completed in less than two, converting more than 95 percent of the C02.

Will the high costs of carbon capture technology threaten its viability?

Currently, the biggest problem with carbon capture technology is the cost. Capturing a single ton of CO2 costs somewhere between $600 and $800, which is far higher than any existing carbon tax, so it’s not exactly an attractive alternative for the polluters. Still, Jendrischik believes that the technology his company is working on has a very bright future. “Long-term, Climeworks’ technology has the potential to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a gigaton scale, something which will definitely have the ability to help reverse global warming,” he says, adding that the company believes it will eventually be able to reduce the cost to just $115. Nicolas Gruber, a professor of environmental physics at the Department of Environmental System Sciences at ETH Zurich, agrees with this assessment. “We cannot afford to let a viable option — also with its problems, it’s by no means a silver bullet to solve all the problems — but we can not afford to [leave] a viable option… on the side, simply because it may not be as cheap as some other options,” he says.

Climate change is taking its toll on our planet, and it’s high time we did something about it. In recent years, carbon capture technology has emerged as a potential solution, but it’s failed to gain much traction so far. One of the main reasons is that it’s simply too expensive at this point to be economically viable. However, as companies like Climeworks continue to work on the technology, the cost is bound to decrease in the future. There are also question marks about whether the new technology can remove enough CO2 to warrant further investment, but with the situation as dire as it is, every little bit helps and we owe it to future generations to explore every available option.

Industries: Energy
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